11:47 am Jan. 10, 2012
At Mary Boone Gallery in Chelsea a woman in jogging shorts and a green T-shirt, with an iPod strapped to her arm, sat with her legs folded under her, staring straight ahead for a half-hour, as if in meditation. A couple walked up and whispered to each other and then stopped talking. One woman bent over gracefully, and with her head tilted slightly she got so close that it seemed like she was about to plant a kiss. Instead she took a picture with her phone. Then a man in a top hat and tailcoat walked in carrying a stuffed animal and the flashbulbs went off as if he was the honored guest of the party.
Asked what he was carrying, he said “A sea rabbit. She’s good.” A gallerist said he had no idea who the man was. “We usually see a lot of familiar faces,” he said. “But not this time.”
It wasn’t the average crowd for a Saturday opening in a Chelsea gallery, or average behavior for gallery-goers, but then again it wasn’t an average exhibit either. These pilgrims had come not for some guru but to see the latest installation from Chinese artist and activist Ai Weiwei, Sunflower Seeds, a work consisting of a large rectangular grouping of hand-painted porcelain sunflower seeds, arranged on the gallery floor. The show, which opened on Saturday and runs through February 4, is the first exhibit of this work in New York (a related show was held at the Tate Modern in October 2010). Of course, the pilgrimage was also to honor Ai, who has emerged as one of the more compelling contemporary artists of our era and, by nature of his political woes, one of the most newsworthy.
“I didn’t expect people to be sitting and hanging out,” said Ron Warren, director and Partner of Mary Boone.
But acts of devotion to Ai are nothing new. Last April, after being detained by Chinese authorities for 81 days and released with a tax fine of some $2.3 million, donations flooded in from fans and supporters to the tune of nearly $775,000, some of them flown into his studio as paper airplanes made of folded-up bills. He’s got 118,767 Twitter followers at the moment, and his Tweets are translated into a number of languages and reposted. He’s even given a TED Talk, taped in secret. He got a standing ovation. Ai’s work has mostly been more indirect than strident in its political bent, but since his detention (he remains under house arrest) and recent statements more overtly critical of Chinese authorities (particularly with regard to political transparency and Internet censoring), he has become, whether he wished it or not, a political, even dissident, artist.
One young CUNY art student named Iris sat on the floor with two colleagues discussing the purpose of beveling the edge of the seedbed. She was on the Mary Boone mailing list. “They had a petition for [Ai Weiwei’s] release,” she said. “I signed it.”
Sunflower Seeds itself is only obliquely political: Each of the seeds was hand-shaped and painted by artisans in Jingdezhen, China, a city historically known for its production of porcelain—so with these small, ordinary pieces Ai is highlighting China’s traditions of artisanship and its modern role as mass-producer to the world.
And yet there was an added bit of tension to the show: no one was allowed to walk on the shells. When the piece was shown at the Tate in 2010, people were, at first, allowed to touch, walk over, roll in the seeds, but midway through that run health officials decreed that the ceramic dust could be a health hazard. At Mary Boone, people were kept at bay, as if by an invisible wall. Or not-so-invisible; security guards strolled from time to time along the edges of the bed.
“It’s solemn,” said Rod Malin, a young curator from Baltimore who had been to the Tate exhibit, where he’d walked on the seeds, and came to see them again here. “Being restricted,” he went on, “made it a more solemn experience.” Wearing a Kangol cap with the OshKosh B’Gosh striped pattern, Malin looked out over the seeds and then to the small groups gathered along the edge, chatting quietly. “It’s a celebration of a different kind.”
And yet while one might have expected a more rebellious attitude towards the restriction, most were sanguine about it. Rob De Oude, one of the founders of Brooklyn’s Camel Art Space, who was standing next to Malin, said, “We thought we would be able to walk on it.” The Tate, he commented, was “more energetic.”
“It’s never about me,” Ai said in an interview with The Guardian. “[My supporters] use me as a mark for themselves to recognize their own form of life: I become their medium. I am always very clear about that.”
One artist, a former trader and amateur astrologer who works with Teflon tape, apple cores, and altered U.S. currency, seemed only mildly interested in the artwork on display, and preferred showing pictures of his own artwork while repeatedly, even egregiously using the word “engage.” “I’ve met [Mary Boone],” he said, then corrected himself, “I engaged her in the Eighties … she was quite intense.” He claimed he’d suggested Boone represent Basquiat “before she showed Basquiat” because of auspicious astrology. “They have their nodes exactly inverted at the same degree,” he said. “And one of the points of the nodes are of an expressionist painter and the other side is spurring a horse to go forward.” He made to move on. “Engage you later,” he said.
Mary Boone made her way around the gallery in a strong purple skirt suit. With fierce eyes, and long black hair, she too was busy engaging people.
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